The Forerunner

John the Baptist by Robert Campin (1410)

Advent 2
Rev. Isaac Bradshaw
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85, 2 Peter 3:8–18, Mark 1:1-8

Collect of the Day: Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen

In November 2001, a little-known video game studio named Bungie published its latest game. It was an important moment in gaming history; Microsoft, the computer company, was introducing its first foray into making a gaming console. Nintendo had run the field for years; Sony had introduced its Playstation 2 the previous March, and in less than a year Sony had sold almost 10 million units. Microsoft’s new console, called the xBox, was a vast gamble for the company; entering a fickle, highly competitive, and expensive market.

And it needed a “killer app.” It needed a game, at launch, that would blow Nintendo and Sony out of the water. The game would have to be near-perfect, exclusive to xBox and so successful that people would buy not just the game, but the console itself, at the low-low price of $299.

The game was called Halo. It told the tale of the Master Chief, a cybernetically enhanced human soldier, his AI companion, Cortana, and their fight against the alien and technologically advanced religious group called the Covenant.

The run up to the game’s release was chaotic; strands of story, of mechanics, of writing were tied together at the last minute, making it difficult for designers and coders to actually make the game work. Marketing seemed to fail to find purchase with the game’s presumed audience, especially when a test play failed at a major gaming convention earlier in 2001. Even Microsoft, Bungie’s owner and publisher, didn’t quite know what to make of the game, memos record that the computer giant was concerned with things as trivial as the the game’s colors in its cover artwork: it clashed with the neon green box. Nervously, the studio pushed ahead, fine tuning the story, fine tuning the gameplay and, yes, the colors in the cover picture.

When Halo was released on November 15, 2001, sales were shaky, but solid. But most importantly, reviews were ecstatic. “Universal acclaim” is how it’s reported today. By two months into the xBox’s availability, 50% of the console’s sales were accompanied by sales of Halo. The gamble had paid off.

Halo had touched something in the minds of gamers. Perhaps it was something in the date: November 15, 2001. Just two months after the 9/11 attacks, it might be said that American gamers were ready to fight against a religio-political enemy. On the other hand, maybe it was the introduction of the multi-player mode; 16 people could play the game against each other; parties and tournaments sprang up across the country, particularly with college campuses.

I’m not so sure it wasn’t the myth though. You see, Halo’s story is more than the traditional good guy with gun -vs- bad guy with gun story. Embedded into the story is a relationship to Biblical myth that calls at our souls and reminds us of the necessity of a Forerunner.

After being attacked by the Covenant, Master Chief, Cortana, and the marines of the Pillar of Autumn space cruiser crash land on a giant, ring-shaped world. On the inside, inner part of the ring, land, water, and technological structures dot the landscape, but no animals. The Covenant lands on the ringworld, now called Halo, to finish off the survivors. But the secrets of the ringworld become clear, and dark. The Halo installation, built by an ancient space-faring race called the Forerunners, contains the remnants of a sentient parasite called the Flood; the parasites transform their hosts into zombie-like creatures that have the potential to destroy all sentient life in the galaxy. But Chief and Cortana are in luck, because the Halo installation also contains the weapon to destroy the flood; bad luck, though, because the weapon kills all sentient life in the galaxy, thus stopping the Flood by starving it. There’s an Ark, too. The forerunners disappeared hundreds of thousands of years ago because they fired the

Halos, destroying all sentient life in the universe, except those, like humans, who were rescued in the Ark. The Halos and the installations set in space, serve as the things left-behind by the Forerunners to warn and to guide. The Covenant wants to fire the Halo and usher in their prophesied Great Journey; Chief and Cortana want to stop them.

Now, I think we’re realizing why Halo tapped into gamers’ psyche in such a… ah… profitable way for Microsoft. Perhaps without knowing it, Bungie had constructed a retelling of an ancient myth: deluge, ark, and salvation.

In world myth, “forerunners” carry with it the idea of a herald; in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the forerunner is that black monolith in the desert; it’s the sign of a new step in human evolution. Some of you might be aware of the “Ancient Aliens” show on “history Channel,” in which various pseudo-scientists see the monuments built by Ancient Egyptians or Ancient indigenous peoples as evidence of ancient aliens visiting the earth to leave us… something. When the Hebrews came to battle during the Conquest of Canaan, the priests and Levites would march with the Ark of the Covenant (there’s those words again…) in front of the army, with banners and trumpets announcing the arrival of the ark. Furthermore, The idea of a Forerunner is embedded into the Christian story; Advent itself is a season of “forerunning,” of preparation for the coming salvation at the coming of the Savior. St. John the Baptist occupies this place in our sequa because of this role of herald. It’s good news that John brings, that the Messiah has come, to bring salvation and the right ordering between God, God’s creation, and God’s beloved people.

But it’s also a warning: get ready.

Forerunners like John call us to the coming of the King, and warn us of what’s to come for those who oppose the King. The forerunner leaves us a warning, an instruction, and a promise. A deluge, an ark and salvation.

Our collect for the day re-centers our thoughts away from man-made, earthly Forerunners and on to the sign, the equivalent of the left-behind Halo ringworlds: Scripture. Take note with me: we prayed to “eat, mark and inwardly digest” the scripture; this isn’t simply a metaphor! What are we commanded to do during communion? Take. Eat. To read scripture in commune with other believers is to participate in God’s presence. It’s a sacrament. It’s an outward and visible sign that spiritually accomplishes what it represents.

Many Anglicans will put Abp Thomas Cranmer’s greatest work as the Book of Common Prayer, with its prayers that have been prayed for over 450 years, and we pray today. A full body of reformed Catholic prayers and pattern of life. But frequently we frame the liturgy as simply the Communion Rite; but Cranmer had much broader intention. He also reformed the routine of daily prayer, called the Office, as well as the lectionary, the daily selection of Scripture appointed to be read at Morning and Evening prayer. Cranmer’s reforms, fully realized, would have poor and rich, peasant and nobility and everything in between, praying and reading the Scriptures daily. Because for Christians, waiting the coming of the King, Scripture is our Forerunner. When we read Scripture together, the King is with us just as much as he was with the Ark, leading the Hebrews into the promised land. It calls and heralds us to prepare the way, to make the way plain, to be comforted; the King is coming. To repent and live in righteousness.

The Forerunners of Halo left behind the alien architecture and ringworlds as merely a pathway to death; in that myth, to follow them is to follow them into death and destruction. To follow our Forerunner, means a path into a life that prepares us for the King. It means living as those priests in the Old Testament conquest, waving our banners and playing our trumpets, living righteously and with the comfort that comes with knowing, in full strength of faith, that the King is coming, in strength and power and with everlasting life as his gift to us, as Forerunners for those we live with and around, those who look like us and those who don’t, those who we agree with and those we don’t. Those who do harm to us… And those who we harm.

About halfway through the game, The Master Chief is brought to the console that will fire the Halos; he is faced with a dilemma: to fire the Halo, stop the flood, and eliminate life in the galaxy or… Choose differently. There exists, here on earth, a false Forerunner and a false gospel, one that declares the only way to see salvation is through death, that we are all simply scratching out an existence, that’s its better if you get rich or get fed or get stuff first. That the Deluge, the Flood is coming, but the King is not. We see it in the way people choose political leadership to make us great again, or build back better, forgetting that we were neither great to begin with, nor can we be better simply by physical exertion. We look to religious leadership to give us a myth that condemns those outside of our in-group: it’s those people who are the reason for the deluge go after them. Or we look to false prophets: there’s nothing wrong, there’s no deluge, no ark necessary.

We don’t always do our Forerunning right, and we don’t always do it well. And sometimes, we have to say sorry, make amends and seek forgiveness. But the one thing we can never say is that we haven’t been told. Because we have a Forerunner in the shape of story, myth, history, letters, praise, prophecy and lament. The only choice we have in this life, the only true choice left in the wake of discovering Scriptures as the forerunner of Jesus Christ, the testimony left to warn us, to prepare us, and to give us

hope, is to choose the life we leave behind. Do we choose to live the life of the Forerunner, declaring God’s great love and the coming King, or do we choose… differently?

When Prophet Isaiah writes:

Go on up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!”

The prophet is calling on *you*. Not a faceless city years ago, but you, to be a Forerunner, preaching the Gospel in season and out. Where is your high mountain? What is your voice with strength? What do you fear? To whom do you say, “Behold your God!” Because this is the good news: in the face of the deluge, in the face of death and hell and cold and whatever the Flood has in store for us:

Behold, the Lord God comes with might.

and his arm rules for him;

behold, his reward is with him,

and his recompense before him.

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;

he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. Amen.

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